This history is about one year in the college curriculum, in one institution, repeated over the course of more than two centuries. The senior year at Yale, this nation’s third oldest college, has birthed and nurtured student associations called “senior societies,” more familiarly known now as “secret societies.” Their fame has gone far beyond that of typical college fraternities. Called by the leading historian of nineteenth-century American college students “perhaps the most unique student institutions in the country,”1 they have played a seminal role in the history of both Yale and the nation.
Election to a senior society in New Haven occurs annually in the spring, when groups of fifteen seniors choose their successors in the junior class for clubs where the members’ names and elections may be public, but their subsequent activity in windowless, fortresslike “tombs” very private. These groups at Yale—Skull and Bones, Scroll and Key, and Berzelius, all founded before the American Civil War, to be followed in succeeding decades by the establishment of Book and Snake, Wolf’s Head, Elihu, Manuscript, and numerous “underground” societies of seniors without their own buildings—are for good reason more popularly known, on campus and off, as “secret societies.” But so, too, were their forebears, Phi Beta Kappa from 1778 most prominently among them.
Their arcane rituals, particularly the annual day of elections known as “Tap Day,” have fascinated the public for over 175 years (the New York Times reported the names of those elected beginning in 1886). The first real secret of these organizations is their original purpose: self-education by and through exercises with their fellow students, when their founders believed their college did not or would not provide that education. This remains true to the present, although what is sought now is as much emotional as intellectual stimulus.
Soon, however, election to their small numbers became the summit of a Yale College career. The societies were compelled to defend their exclusivity and the privilege of their privacy—their secrecy—by making election choices which were seen on campus to be “democratic,” rewarding with the prestige of membership in their last year collegians who had excelled in undergraduate endeavors of all kinds. The senior societies became in time more democratic and diverse, incorporating into their numbers over the years talented outsiders (Jews and blacks, other non-Protestant ethnics, scholarship students, and finally women), and easing the passage of previously dismissed castes into the American establishment, decades before their elders and betters followed suit in the higher councils of the university and the nation.
The statistical insignificance of the sample population, and the brevity of the experience, should consign the subject of Yale senior society membership to the dustbin of undergraduate nostalgia. Although a statistical sliver, at 15 percent, of their respective class cohorts, in one college among hundreds in this country, these young men nevertheless went on to become among the most prominent leaders in American politics, diplomacy, law, literature, publishing, journalism, higher education, religion, finance, the ministry, physical and social science, philanthropy, and the counterintelligence services.
To take only the category of national politics, all three of the presidents of the United States who attended Yale College (William Howard Taft and the two Bushes) were members of Skull and Bones, and indeed were the sons of members of that society. More recently on the major parties’ presidential tickets were senior society members John Kerry and vice presidential nominees Sargent Shriver and Joe Lieberman for the Democrats, with a near-miss presidential nominee two generations before in Robert A. Taft for the Republicans. Moreover, six of Yale’s sons who became secretaries of state, both of her chief justices of the Supreme Court, and three attorneys general were members. So were three secretaries of the treasury (most recently, President Trump’s), two secretaries of war, two secretaries of defense, two directors of the Central Intelligence Agency, one secretary of the army, one of three secretaries of the navy, two treasurers of the United States, and Yale’s single secretary of commerce and only postmaster general.
Their membership served their alma mater disproportionately as well: of the eight presidents of Yale graduating after the first society was founded and serving between 1886 and 1992, all but two were members of Bones, Keys, or Wolf’s Head. University treasurers for all but five years between 1862 and 1910 were members, as were the university secretaries for more than a half century between 1869 and 1921. The faculty was even more inbred, at least into the early twentieth century, with a remarkable 80 percent between 1865 and 1916 being alumni of Skull and Bones. Graduates of Bones and Keys were also prime movers in the mid-nineteenth-century alteration of the Yale Corporation to include elected alumni, and to this day, these graduates absolutely predominate among the ranks of the university’s most generous donors, many recalling the valued warmth of their society membership in making their gifts.
Since election on the New Haven campus at age nineteen or twenty became a frequent predictor of some future national prominence, the societies themselves became nationally famous. They were the subject of the United States’ most famous college novel, 1912’s Stover at Yale, but also figured thereafter in fiction by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Stephen Vincent Benét, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John O’Hara, and John le Carré. The societies have been featured in motion pictures like The Good Shepherd, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and in the trilogy of thrillers The Skulls. Their legends have even been embellished in cartoons, including Doonesbury—Garry Trudeau, a member of Scroll and Key, happy to tweak Keys’ rival Bones and its two Bushes—and The Simpsons, that show’s Harvard graduate writers making Homer Simpson’s employer C. Montgomery Burns a roommate of Stover and retroactive member of the class of 1914 and Skull and Bones.
The fame of the senior societies of Yale College—or, for their detractors, the notoriety—springs from the confluence of four circumstances of their existence. The first is the large shadow cast by Yale in our country’s political history for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; the second, the sustained prominence, over almost two centuries, of the societies’ initiates in all phases of American life; and the third, the proximity of New Haven to New York City, the nation’s social, financial, and media capital, resulting in frequent press reports of the elections to the societies and of the controversies surrounding them. The final circumstance is the provoking secrecy maintained by their initiates after being “tapped” for membership, literally disappearing into “tombs” and a culture which has given the American language new meanings, still current, for “tapped,” meaning to be chosen, and “spook,” meaning spy.
Their general confidentiality has not stopped secrets of all the societies from leaking out over the decades, through methods as customary as gossip from observant roommates and divorced wives, and as crude as thefts from the societies’ tombs by rivals and strangers. Related here are verifiable facts about the Yale secret societies that are attributable to credible published works: there will be no “secrets” here that have not already, somehow and somewhere, been revealed at least once in print, and otherwise verified. “The least-studied and most mysterious group in the history of American higher education,” one historian has said, “[is] the students, who composed the largest single group on the rosters of colleges and universities, and who were, ostensibly, the primary objects of the institutions’ concerns.”2 Through the prism of the Yale senior societies, part of that story may be discerned.
Whatever one’s opinion of them, these small student clubs, beginning in the 1830s and ’40s during the Romantic movement in the arts and letters, to this day operate on the patently Romantic proposition that the discovery of an inner, authentic self both corresponds with and advances the aim of forming an ideal community. There are now at least forty-seven senior societies at Yale, nine “landed,” with tombs or houses, and the rest, nomadic and meeting in rented rooms, known as “undergrounds.” With each society electing the canonical fifteen (or a gender-balanced sixteen) members, almost half of the senior class students at Yale are in consequence presently member participants.
Attitudes toward them have usually been influenced by two mystifications. The first sentimentalizes and romanticizes youth and imagination as fields of pure value. The second demonizes such groups, finding them sinister at worst and precious at best. Both views are inadequate, because they are reductionist, failing to take into account the asymmetries and complexities of the past. Talented people are not saints, and even genius is not privileged. Conspiracies are seductive, seemingly dramatic and rational, but as explanations for events are too simple. This book will try to thresh the wheat from the tares, to separate the values from the legends.
Still, the author is in the position of Donald Ogden Stewart, a Bonesman in the class of 1916 and later an Academy Award–winning screenwriter in Hollywood. Publishing a magazine article on Yale in H. L. Mencken’s Smart Set for December 1921, he detailed the aspirations, tensions, and drama of these clubs, and concluded: “This essay is, furthermore, grossly unfair to the Senior societies in the following respect: I have shown the effect of the more or less false tradition which has grown up in the undergraduates’ minds concerning these institutions. I am not able to show the other side of the picture. It is as though a Catholic priest, having described the terrifying effect of an imposing cathedral upon him as a boy, were suddenly to stop before he had testified as to what the Church had come to mean to him after ordination. I do not think, in my own case at least, that the analogy is a bad one.”